Ripken puts Orioles, however briefly, into spotlight


TORONTO -- Cal Ripken could not have dreamed up a better way to decorate his dream season. The tremendous three-run home run he hit Tuesday night in the 62nd All-Star Game was the perfect punctuation mark for a near perfect first-half performance.

Ripken even took a big swing for the Baltimore Orioles organization when he went downtown on former teammate Dennis Martinez. It had not gone unnoticed that there were four former Orioles on the National League team, but none would make headlines in the American League's 4-2 victory at SkyDome.

The beleaguered Orioles could not have asked for better PR. Ripken is their ambassador to the baseball world, and he generated enough positive energy on Tuesday night to make Baltimore baseball fans forget -- at least for a few hours -- that their team remains anchored near the bottom of the American League standings.

The third-inning home run was also an international shot in the arm for Ripken, whose consecutive-games streak (now at 1,491) had been blamed for a decline in his offensive production the past few years.

The streak has not been an issue this year, not with Ripken batting a league-high .348 and ranked among the league leaders in almost every relevant offensive category. It became an issue on Tuesday night, but for all the right reasons.

The Lou Gehrig connection worked very well, since the All-Star Game festivities were built around a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. DiMaggio was a teammate of Gehrig's. He is a living link to baseball's golden age. Ripken picked a good night to shine.

He carried the American League to its fourth consecutive All-Star victory and walked away with the Most Valuable Player trophy, something only three Orioles have done before him. Pitcher Billy O'Dell was the MVP of the 1958 game, which was played at Memorial Stadium. Brooks Robinson was MVP in 1966, even though the American League lost the game, and Frank Robinson won in 1971.

Ripken was the first Oriole to homer in All-Star competition since Ken Singleton took future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver to the bleachers in 1981. Brooks and Frank Robinson have also homered in the mid-season classic.

It was Ripken's 13th homer of the All-Star break. He hit 12 to dominate Monday's home run derby during the public workout, five more than the four-man National League team combined. He does not consider himself to be a classic power hitter, but he is on a pace that should carry him into the 30s for the first time in his career.

"It seems like these two days here have been like my whole first half," Ripken said. "Everything is going right. It starts to make you feel like it's your year."

He was not the only one to notice. It has been a first half that even perennial batting champion Wade Boggs can envy.

"It's Cal's world right now," said the Boston Red Sox third baseman. "We're just passing through.

"He's doing everything right. I've sat back and watched other players go through streaks like this, where everything they touch is pure golden. It's amazing to watch, fun to watch. Unless you're playing against him."

Ripken singled in his first at-bat and homered in his second. If he had hit safely, instead of into a force play, in his final trip to the plate, he would have matched his All-Star hit total for his 20 previous at-bats.

Still, Tuesday could have been an even bigger night. Ripken was on his way to the plate with two runners on in the sixth inning, but was removed for pinch hitter Ozzie Guillen after National League manager Lou Piniella brought on hard-throwing Rob Dibble in relief. Guillen moved the runners over with a sacrifice and the AL scored an insurance run, but it might have been better theater if Ripken had come up again.

"It would have been a challenge," he said, "but I can't think of a better time to be pinch hit for. The guy throws 100 mph."

AL manager Tony La Russa prefers to manage the All-Star Game as if it counted in the standings, so he went to Guillen for the sacrifice bunt.

"The way Cal has been swinging, he probably would have hit another three-run home run," La Russa said, "and guess who gets to see him Thursday."

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